Some time ago at Tor.com there was a re-watch of all of the Pixar films to date, in preparation for the upcoming release of Brave. The reviewer had this to say about Wall-E:

More than anything else, Wall-E is a movie about the importance of appreciating and creating art—without it, we are cut off from each other, and from ourselves. As far as depictions of dystopian futures are concerned, the movie is rather gentle—nothing about the cushy Axiom is likely to traumatize small children… but at the same time, its indictment of a culture entirely devoted to the mindless consumption of “entertainment” with no artistic merit or intellectual value is chilling the more you think about it.

This was an interesting analysis, mostly because it doesn’t match up with my own feelings about the film. I don’t think that this analysis is wrong, necessarily, but I would not have thought to linking Wall-E primarily to art. It seems to me that Wall-E is largely a film about love.

Wall-E decorates sleeping Eve for Christmas.
The most striking scenes in Wall-E are his early interactions with Eve, which present a beautiful picture of love and devotion which persists in the face of rejection by the beloved. Wall-E loves Eve from the moment he meets her, but his love is not a shallow infatuation or self-serving obsession. Rather, he attempts to serve her and woo her, and his efforts are not dissuaded by her disinterest. His persistence never impinges on her or threatens her. He conquers her resistance with his devotion, but he does it without invoking any of the territorial or aggressive overtones that that word sometimes brings.

He most clearly demonstrates this in the scenes after Eve discovers the plant and shuts down, when Wall-E is required to protect and tend for her. During this time, Eve has not yet reciprocated Wall-E’s devotion, but he cares for he anyway, even though she’s unconscious and unaware of his actions. This, more than anything, is what proves Wall-E’s worthiness of Eve: he cares for her, not to impress her or possess her, but for her own sake. And this selfless love is what eventually brings Wall-E to the Axiom and sets in motion the redemption of the human society there.

Wall-E amongst the garbage
But how does this relate to the films ecological and anti-consumerist themes? At first glance, Wall-E’s love does not seem like an answer to the environmental catastrophe of the Earth and the pleasant tyranny of the Axiom. But this is a false conclusion. Consumption is the opposite of love, and the excesses of consumption can only be righted be relearning what it means to love.

Consumption is self-oriented. Consumption is about fulfilling ones own desires and disregarding the broader consequences. Consumption is individual rights, profit-seeking, and competition. Consumption can only think of love as acquisition, and could not fathom Wall-E’s care for Eve, which she can neither reciprocate nor even remember. The Earth that Wall-E leaves has been rendered a waste by the excesses of consumption, and the Axiom that he comes to is one in which all human interaction has been replaced by consumerism. People talk to each other on the Axiom, but only through screens and advertising. Wall-E’s advent on the Axiom knocks a pair of humans out of their flying chairs and into a romance, foreshadowing the upheavals of the entire society which occur at the end of the film. The repudiation of consumption can only come through the recovery of love.

The end of the film shows us the human society returning to love as a social principle. A sustainable society requires that we act with love, not just for those nearest, but to those who cannot remember or reciprocate, the unborn and the dead. The work of reclaiming the ruined world is a work of love for those who will come after, while the work of preservation is an act of love and honor for those who came before.

In another, more predictable film (cough Avatar), our ecologically ruined world might be contrasted with some pristine native paradise, showing us the difference between what we are and what we could have been. Wall-E does something better. It shows us what we could become, but then says I will show you a better way.

Like all good genre writers, I love me some zombies. I even included some in my book. So when one of my favorite online magazines prints an essay of social analysis combined with zombies I am all over that:

And it is often so that popular culture, guided only by its intuitive and communal wisdom, sees what can’t be seen, but is nevertheless real. But having gained some trust in that, I was still confused by the rather odd phenomenon of the zombies. Why did this rather obscure Caribbean cult of people in a drug-induced catatonic state get so easily transformed into such an elaborate metaphor of the post-apocalyptic world? And why did they think that the world after the collapse would be filled with people stripped of their souls, stripped of all feelings, whether of pain or pleasure, anger or joy, who spent their time relentlessly pursuing one product?

And then it struck me: they aren’t looking into the future, they are looking at the present moment; and they aren’t looking at what will be done to others; they are looking at what has already been done to themselves. The image, so silly on its face, resonates with the young because they know, at some intuitive level, that we are already in the midst of the apocalypse, that the world wishes to strip them of their minds and their hearts and make them pure consumers, and relentless consumers of one product, the advertiser’s dream. They know, in their heart of hearts, that the world is out to get them, and means them no good. They have seen a deeper truth than anyone cares to admit.

The author is both more pessimistic and more optimistic than me. He thinks that we’re in imminent danger of social collapse (I don’t), but that some good things will appear in its immediate aftermath (I think it’ll take a lot longer than that). And the essay is adapted from an address given to a Catholic audience, but since I’m not a Catholic there are a few parts of it that I won’t wholly endorse. Nonetheless, it was a cracking good read.